(This review was originally published on January 11, 2013 at Reel Film News)
“Zero Dark Thirty” is nothing if it isn’t meticulously put together, and that seems like enough to qualify this smart, painstaking film for my top three of 2012, if not the last five years, particularly because of how scrupulously it treats such a delicate topic without catering to any obvious agendas. Though Oscar buzz has been surrounding this thing almost since its inception (which was initially slated to be a different story, since writing commenced before Osama bin Laden was killed), it breaks what might be considered the traditional mold for awards season, a stoic beast amongst a barrage of emotion-rich fare. That said, the film is a cinematic masterpiece that will probably get shortchanged in some category by the Academy (seeing as Kathryn Bigelow claimed hers for “The Hurt Locker” four years ago, typical politics have inevitably kicked in. She wasn’t even nominated this year for what is superior to her previous work). Thankfully, politics is something this film lacks almost entirely; it is primarily objective, purposefully unsensational – with perhaps the exception of its final 30 minutes – and unapologetic in almost every facet of the story.
Immersed in the details of the search for Osama bin Laden with little to no exposition for the laymen (and surprisingly unconfusing in doing so), “ZDT” has no fat on its bones; even at nearly 2 hours, 40 minutes, there’s nothing extraneous. I won’t speculate on its accuracy – seeing as no civilian will every really know exactly what happened during the course of the world’s biggest manhunt – but there’s a hard, technical, realistic edge all the same. The film is as cohesive as cement, an analogy that could also apply to its level of emotion,which is buried beneath the lexicon of the military and CIA if only to reinforce that this film is strictly business. An extremely well-outfitted procedural with a major disadvantage (that is, having very little leeway for surprising its audience), the film still manages to sustain extreme tension; since we know how it turns out, which here is depicted in close to real-time as Seal Team Six infiltrates bin Laden’s compound, the ‘hows’ and ‘whens’ of the decade that leads up to that moment are what really makes the film so incredibly engaging.
Perhaps one of the few works of such a caliber that can get away with so little character development, Bigelow realizes that expounding upon back story for marginally fictionalized characters would only compromise its purpose and its dead-serious tone. This one is a straight shot all the way, maintaining the rigid style Bigelow used on her previous, smaller-scale film and reteaming with “Hurt Locker” scribe Mark Boal; based on the subject matter, he’ll be more likely to win ‘Most Scrutinized’ instead of ‘Best Original’ screenplay. Its depiction of torture, a setting with which the film opens where Dan (Jason Clarke) uses several methods to extract information, has been the film’s most divisive element.
Jessica Chastain plays Maya, an intrepid interrogator who, if we didn’t know that her endeavor would end in success, has martyr written all over her. She’s the centerpiece of the film, though surrounded by specialists like Dan who fulfill various functions along the way. Still, you get the sense that she’s often on her own with her theories on the terrorist’s whereabouts, beliefs that are sometimes lost among a group of higher-ups consisting almost exclusively of men (Mark Strong and Kyle Chandler among them). But gender issues are only implied, as Bigelow keeps things focused on the objective, like Maya, who never misses a beat, and is never depicted as someone who has a chip on her shoulder. She is simply driven. This is reflected in her social life, which is nonexistent outside of the CIA; even her closest friend, played by Jennifer Ehle, is a seasoned company woman.
Most of what you see in the trailer doesn’t happen until the final 45 minutes; the title refers to 12:30 AM, the time when bin Laden was shot and killed. It’s a scene so well choreographed that the green hue of the night-vision goggles gave me goosebumps; the silenced gunshots and double-tapping of their targets are a disturbing series of swift executions and tactical maneuvers that might resemble a military exercise being caught on CNN. But this heavy procedural does not support itself solely on that big, inevitable moment; “ZDT” rests almost entirely on Maya, who represents some unnamed enigma – or a composite of several – in real life, whose real identity remains protected.
The cast has almost too many to name, but Joel Edgerton and Chris Pratt stand out as members of Seal Team Six; an against-type Mark Duplass has a small role as an analyst and James Gandolfini plays the CIA director.
Toward the end of the film, it’s addressed that Maya’s only project with the agency has been working on finding bin Laden. When the dust settles, it’s tough to differentiate between her relief and her emptiness, though Chastain’s perfect performance could have you believing either. Like the rest of the film, only hard facts and strategies are verbalized openly; their emotions are left for us to try to read from their expressions, and often lack thereof. Like her job, there is no place for sentiment here, just harsh reality.
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Annapurna Pictures, Chris Pratt, Columbia Pictures, James Gandolfini, Jason Clarke, Jennifer Ehle, Jessica Chastain, Joel Edgerton, Kathryn Bigelow, Kyle Chandler, Mark Boal, Mark Duplass, Mark Strong, Zero Dark Thirty